Sex Sells: A Look at the Life Of Doris Wishman: The Queen of Sexploitation

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A year after her husband died in 1958, Doris Wishman decided she wanted to try her hand at making movies. The 46 year old New York native had some experience as an actress, and she had worked as a film booker for a time, specializing in exploitation and art house films. Censorship laws were becoming more lax, and nudie cutie films were causing an uproar in New York, which was one of the first states to allow such movies to be shown in public theaters. To help kickstart her film, she borrowed $10,000 from her sister and set out to make her first film entitled Hideout In The Sun. The film revolved around two brothers who rob a bank and decide to hideout from authorities in a nudist camp. Her second film, Nude on the Moon was banned by the New York State Censorship Board. While the state was one of the first to allow films with nudity, the law stated that on screen nudity had to occur in an actual nudist colony where such freedom is legal. Placing a nudist camp in a science fiction/ fantasy setting was considered a violation of nudity laws. But never the less the ban only made people want to see it even more, especially when rumors began to leak that the film had a nude volleyball scene. Overall Wishman would make eight nudist films, and even managed to get burlesque legend Blaze Starr to star in her own feature film, Blaze Starr Goes Nudist.

In 1964, Wishman changed her approach and entered the controversial film world of sexploitation. Wishman, who was already on the censorship radar, tiptoed a fine line when it came to portraying eroticism. It was a challenge many directors faced when making sexually explicit themed films at the time. Wishman created her own style that helped replicate the excitement of sexual tension and release. 

In the beginning, nudity was often brief or suggested. More artistic shots were choreographed to show just enough skin, but blocked the actual breasts and buttocks. To help cut on production costs, Wishman shot in black and white and used a hand held camera. Bad Girls Go To Hell was released in 1965. The film begins with a rape in an apartment stairwell, and follows the trials a housewife faces when she makes unethical choices. Wishman followed with the film Another Day Another Man (1966). The story focuses on two roommates who share an apartment in New York. Ann is engaged and happy to become the ideal picture perfect wife, while Tess is miserable and works as a prostitute who gets taken advantage of by her pimp. It’s a contrasting look at what is considered good and bad in the eyes of society. While Ann is happy, she constantly worries about money, yet despite being carefree of money troubles, Tess has little joy. Full of black silky lingerie and slow panning shots across the contours of nylon covered legs and feet, Another Day is a feast for the eyes. While it may be a skimpy skin flick, the contrasting characters create an interesting dynamic. 

Tess is miserable with her lifestyle. She longs to be loved and to start a family. Wishman wrote the character with a lot of empathy. As creatively as she insinuated sexual tension on screen, she was also able to subliminally insert feminist ideas into her films. Feminist undertones isn’t the first thing men thought of when going to see the dirty movies of the era, and considering the sexist culture of the time it’s safe to assume most of the messages went over most male viewers heads. Yet here was a character that was trapped in an unhealthy relationship and wanted to get out. The film highlights how quickly a woman can get caught up in a domineering relationship. Like most of Wishman’s sexploitation films, the end is depressing, with no happy resolution for the characters involved. 

Indecent Desires is a supernatural film with a perverse twist. When a socially awkward loner finds a doll in a trashcan, he discovers the doll is physically linked to a woman named Ann who he has been stalking. What ever he does to the doll in the privacy of his home, Ann can feel being done to her. There is a creep factor to the film, watching a man molest a doll, which forces Ann to succumb to sexual desires against her will. The film also briefly features a sexual relationship between two women. The two women share a kiss and caress one another in a private setting. The film definitely pushed the envelope during a restrictive cinematic era. Desires is one of the most experimental films of Wishman’s career. 

During the ‘60s Wishman made a total of 16 films, making her the most active working female director of the era. Embracing the "sex sells" nature of the genre, she earned a reputation not just for the flesh shown on the screen, but her imaginative stories. In 1970 Wishman returned to the world of color film making with Love Toy. When a compulsive gambler loses everything, he offers up his daughter as reconciliation for his debt. The '70s brought with it the abolishment of many on screen film restrictions. Love Toy is more graphic in nature as a result. Although not a term at the time, Love Toy helped paved the road for the soft core film movement. While mainstream theaters shied away from such films, the more tolerant laws allowed older theaters to show these films without penalty, thus began the heyday of adult movie theaters. In 1973 Wishman gained notoriety in the adult film industry with the release
of Deadly Weapons, starring burlesque dancer Chesty Morgan. The weapons in question were Miss Morgan's size 73 bust. Morgan plays Crystal, a woman who goes on a revenge vendetta after the murder of her boyfriend. In true Wishman film fashion Crystal seduces the wrong doers and then smothers them to death with her huge breasts. The film was popular enough that Wishman would make a second film with Morgan the following year titled Double Agent 73. The films did well, pulling in curious viewers who wanted to see Miss Morgan’s huge attractions. The films have since developed a cult following, and director John Waters used a clip from Deadly Weapons in his film Serial Mom. The Chesty Morgan films put Wishman on the map in the adult film circuit, so much so that she decided to try her hand at making a hardcore pornographic feature. The result was Satan Was A Lady, released in 1975. The film has an intertwined plot following an engaged couple, complete with spousal affairs and scheming family members. Wishman choose to be billed by the alias Kenyon Wintel after making the film. She would follow with another hardcore film Come With Me, My Love. There was something about filming explicit sex Wishman did not like. She considered it distasteful, and preferred the more artist approach to insinuate lovemaking. Explicit sex left little room when it came to creativity. After two movies she gave up making hardcore films and returned to her soft core roots.

In 1978 Wishman directed the semi-documentary Let Me Die A Woman. The film is comprised of interviews with several transgender individuals as well as activist Deborah Hartin and Dr Leo Wallman, who provided care and counseling for transgender people in the '70s. Between the interviews there are reenactment scenes that help convey the stories and experiences shared in the interviews. The film was ahead of its time considering sexual identity, and one of the first to break the ice concerning these issues in a film format. 

The following year Wishman changed gears again and decided to try her hand at making a horror film. Slasher films were quickly gaining in popularity largely in part to the success of Halloween. Production began on A Night To Dismember in 1979, which would have been Wishman’s first mainstream cinematic feature had production not been so problematic. There are conflicting facts surrounding the film, but Wishman claims several reels were destroyed by the photo processing lab, resulting in the loss of a large portion of the film. Wishman had to re-shoot half of the movie as a result. Dismember would spend the next four years in post-production. The setback resulted in a straight to video release in 1983. The film stars pornographic actress Samantha Fox (no relation to the English singer) as a young woman compelled to kill to fulfill and ancestral curse. The film ended up being an absolute mess and received mostly negative reviews, not even gathering the prestigious "so bad it’s good" honor like many other b-horror films of the time. Wishman claimed the choppy film was the result of the lost reels. She also further explained the reels were destroyed in a fire. And in another account she claimed they were destroyed by a disgruntled employee when the company went bankrupt. 

The controversy thickened in 2018 when a complete video master of the original film was discovered in the possession of the film’s cinematographer, C. Davis Smith. The film was uploaded to YouTube and fans were shocked to discover actress Diana Cummings in the lead role with an entirely different plot. It is said that Fox replaced Cummins after the purported loss of the original film reels. Regardless of the controversy, Wishman retired from film making afterwards and moved to Florida where she found a job in an adult novelty store.

The Return of the Queen

Wishman’s films gained popularity in video distribution. In the '90s Something Weird Video began releasing her films on DVD, which lead to a cult following, and ultimately, the resurrection of her career. She was honored at the New York Underground Film Festival in 1998, and received a life time achievement award for her films from the Chicago Underground Film Festival that same year. And in Los Angles several of her films were selected for a festival titled Doris Wishman: Queen Of Sexploitation. With her new found fame, Wishman came out of retirement and began work on her first film in 18 years, Satan Was A Lady (although the film differs from her 1975 film of the same name). The film premiered at the New York Underground Film Festival in 2001. The film was a return to her sexploitation roots. After the film’s completion Wishman immediately began work on her next film. With her creativity re-energized, and at the age of 88, Wishman made a comedy called Dildo Heaven. The film was shot in Miami near the sex shop Wishman worked at. Starring scheming women, a peeping tom, and phallic obsessions, Wishman used scenes from her other films and cut them into Dildo Heaven. For one particular scene, a cartoon keyhole was cut into cardboard and the camera zooms in to peak through, displaying a scene from another of her films that is playing on a tv behind it. It is a wacky film that is a retrospective look at Wishman’s film making techniques. In 2002 Wishman began work on Each Time I Kill. Again using the theme of a supernatural locket, the film stars Tiffany Paralta as a girl who discovers the locket allows her to trade a physical feature with anyone she murders. The film had cameos from director John Waters, B-52s frontman Fred Schnider, and scream queen Linnea Quigley. Wishman passed away not long after filming at the age of 90 from Lymphoma. The film debuted at the New York Underground Film Festival in 2007 and was dubbed the Swan Song of Sexplotation.

Doris Wishman’s legacy lives on, especially among fans of B-movies and aspiring film makers. Her films were gritty and low budget. She didn’t let the fact that she didn’t have have elaborate sets or equipment hold her back from making films. At the time of her death, the was the most active female filmmaker in the sound era of film. She made a total of 28 films with themes ranging from the sexual perils of bored housewives, to a man who develops the psychotic urge to murder after a penis transplant. Regardless of how abstract an idea was, she made it work, and did it her way. She was a bit of a firecracker in her senior years. In 2002 she appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien the same night as film critic Roger Ebert to promote the release of Dildo Heaven. “There is only one reason anyone wanted to see a Chesty Morgan film,” Ebert told Wishman, “and that is to see Chesty Morgan nude. And all we got were shots of Chesty with her clothes on.” Without missing a beat 89 year old Wishman placed her hand on Ebert’s arm and replied, “Well I’m sorry you’re frustrated. Is there anything I can do?” Vibrant and sassy till the end, Wishman pushed the envelope farther than most, paving the road with all things crude and taboo. As far as film pioneers go, her works not only helped change the industry, but inspired many with with her DIY approach to film making. 

--Lee L. Lind